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From Cairo to Jerusalem

What unrest and elections to the south could mean to the north

Marc Tracy
November 28, 2011
Tahrir Square in Cairo yesterday.(Odd AndersenAFP/Getty Images)
Tahrir Square in Cairo yesterday.(Odd AndersenAFP/Getty Images)

As we wake up in the United States, they are going to the polls in Egypt for the first parliamentary elections since the reign of President Hosni Mubarak. At times fatal protests rocked Cairo and elsewhere over the past several days (the prominent Egyptian-American columnist Mona Eltahawy was arrested, treated brutally, and sexually abused, she said) as it became clear that, regardless of the elections’ outcome, the ruling military council—meet the new boss, same as the old boss?—does not intend to relinquish power. So, both today’s nominal results—expected to be a victory for Islamist movements, chiefly the Muslim Brotherhood—and the likely irrelevance of those results could increase an unstable situation in the most populous Arab country and thereby fulfill the prophecies of those in Israel and the United States who feared the worst following Mubarak’s ouster. (Cut to: the natural gas pipeline in the Sinai being sabotaged for the ninth time this year.)

“Israel and Egypt have an interest to preserve peace and stability,” said Prime Minister Netanyahu in response. He added that “nothing would be better for prosperity, for security, for peace,” than for Egypt to be democratic. Which is of course dubious! A democratic Egypt is very likely an Egypt run by the Brotherhood—indeed, the unrest of recent days has if anything strengthened the hand of the country’s oldest and most organized political party. Already, the Brotherhood has been able to throw its newfound weight around: through Egypt and Jordan (whose monarch is scared of his own revolt), it has blocked the demolition of a bridge in the Old City of Jerusalem. The point isn’t whether you agree that the bridge should not be removed (some allege the project is intended to ease settlers’ access to the Temple Mount). It’s that already popular Islamist movements in the Arab world have been able to affect Israeli policy.

Regionally, this has wider implications. The New York Times’ indefatigable Anthony Shadid published an essay yesterday taking stock of the region and noting that the Islamist complication, among others, means that the Arab Spring, which at various times over the past year has seemed so neatly tied up, is going to go through several more messy stages yet. Elections held Friday in Morocco saw the Islamist Justice and Development (yes, that is also the name of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s party) win the plurality of parliamentary seats. In Egypt, there are a number of ways this could all play out. The military council offered to immediately form a new government with one ex-prime minister; protesters rejected this and instead proposed a National Salvation Government to be helmed by Mohammed ElBaradei, the once and perhaps future presidential candidate.

Notably, the National Salvation suggestion was put forth by a coalition of Islamist and secular protesters, a sign that Egypt could at the least be moving toward a Turkey-style model of official but comparatively moderate and tolerant Islamism. (Still not great for Israel, if Turkey is any indication, but given that the alternative is something closer to the government of Gaza … .) Another promising notion is the truism that the surest way for an ideological movement to lose support is for it to gain power and be summarily introduced to the compromises that power necessitates. So far, Egypt’s Brotherhood has maintained a deliberate ambiguity about what exactly their vision of politically realized Islamism is—they know the second they are forced to articulate it, many of their supporters will disagree. Which is a good reminder of why democracy is indeed the worst form of government except for all the others.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.